It was not just another Maude taping. Warming up the live audience at the Metromedia studio on Sunset Blvd. was Norman Lear himself, founding father of All in the Family and all its CBS spinoffs. “You will feel,” Lear declared sonorously, “that you are listening to a cast of thousands.” In fact, the SRO human laugh track would be responding only to Maude, who, in a sitcom first, was unburdening herself in a 24-min., 34-sec. soliloquy in the office of her shrink. But for all the force of thousands that the performance evokes (the episode was scheduled to air Nov. 10), any other resemblance between TV’s reigning battle-ax and Bea Arthur, the actress who plays her, is purely apocryphal.
“I’m a tall lady with a deep voice, and so is Maude,” explains Bea. So much for similarities. Bea observes, “Maude is a complete woman’s libber—for myself, I’ve never been aware there is a problem.” And whereas her TV doppelganger is on her fourth husband, the monogamous Arthur just celebrated her silver anniversary. Also, unlike Walter, her hapless appliance-dealer husband in the series, Bea’s spouse, Gene Saks, is a major American comedy director whose credits include films like The Odd Couple plus the current Broadway smash, Same Time, Next Year.
In their 3.7-acre estate in a Brentwood canyon, Bea, 51, is a shy and even soft-spoken opposite of her strident TV alter egotist. She fusses over Gene, a gentle man of 54 years whom she calls an un-Maudelike “darling,” and they are constantly fondling. The smartmouths in the household are their adopted sons, Matthew, 14, and Daniel, 11. Only when Matthew pronounces his folks “a couple of losers” does the usually permissive Bea finally squelch him with “If I hear that once more, kid, you’re through.”
It took Maude, a top-ten hit for four seasons—and the challenge of movie directing and year-round tennis for Gene—to uproot the family from the East. Gene’s folks ran two women’s shoe stores in Hackensack, N.J., and he went to Cornell to study drama before being interrupted by World War II. (He was a Naval officer in the invasion of Normandy.) Arthur grew up Beatrice Frankel in Cambridge, Md., where her parents owned a department store and she “worked one season at the local hospital before I decided I had to go to New York and try to become a singer or actress.”
She fetched up at the New School’s drama workshop with such other novices as Tony Curtis, Walter Matthau, Harry Belafonte and Rod Steiger, but the star to her was none of these. “The first day of class,” Bea recalls, “Gene got up and did something funny. If I saw it now, I would probably throw things. But I thought he was great, and he thought I was great because I thought he was so great.” Both agreed that she was over her head at the time, but the director, Erwin Piscator, impressed by her big voice—and bust—kept casting her in heroic roles beyond her experience. “I was petrified,” she says. “I used to hide behind other characters in crowd scenes.”
Though graduation was to lead to three years of scrimping in a $50-a-month cold-water flat, they were married at the Waldorf-Astoria, with a rabbi insisted upon by her mother. “She said to me, ‘You’ll love him.’ ” In fact, the bride discovered, “he had a blue suit and scuffed tan shoes. All the hot hors d’oeuvres were eaten up by the time the ceremony began. My uncle was drunk and crying”—(pause)—”It was terrible!” After their “flower children” period, Bea finally made her name in off-Broadway shows like The Threepenny Opera. Norman Lear caught her then for the first time and remembers, “I was absolutely in awe of her. My hands were shaking. I thought she was one of the greatest talents in the theater.” So he coaxed her to the Coast for some guest shots on the old George Gobel Show, which he was then producing. Bea remembers that as “the lowest point in my life. Gene and I were living on frozen Mexican TV dinners at a hotel called the Castle Argyle.”
They returned to Broadway, where Saks scored in the stage and movie versions of A Thousand Clowns, playing the oppressive kiddie-show host, Chuckles the Chipmunk. In 1963, he turned director successfully with Enter Laughing. But when Gene was laid up with hepatitis two years later, it was Bea, then in semi-retirement, who went back to work, starring as Yente the Matchmaker in Fiddler on the Roof. “Every time something happened to me,” Gene says, “Bea would take up the slack. And when I was working she was just as happy at home as wife and mother.” Bea jokes that she still bears emotional scars from the time when Gene directed her to a Tony Award as the cobra-tongued Vera Charles in Mame. “It was awful. He bullied me, bossed me and would humiliate me in front of the entire cast,” she complains. “One night I told him very quietly that if he did it again I’d walk out. We haven’t worked together since. No,” she adds, “after that it was glorious.” The success of their marriage, Bea figures, “has to do with mutual admiration for the other’s talent without, at least to my knowledge, any feeling of competition.”
Norman Lear reentered Bea Arthur’s life when he decided All in the Family needed a character “who could belt Archie Bunker. I knew from my own family that there’s no belter like an old belter,” Lear explains. “It had to be Bea.” As Archie’s adversary, Cousin Maude, Bea “lifted the lines from the floor to clout him,” according to Norman. “Before I even had a chance to call CBS, they called to say that she had to have her own show.”
For all of Maude’s breakthroughs against network no-no’s with episodes on abortion, birth control, pornography and pot, Bea herself is to the right of Ms. Findlay. “I think of myself as a liberal,” she notes, “but I don’t go out for political causes or circulate petitions.” Bea did suggest one script on facelifts because she wanted one herself—”but when I went to a plastic surgeon, one of the biggies, he told me I wasn’t ready, so I’ve had to wear lifts on the show ever since.”
Same Time, Next Year came mercifully after Gene’s bomb with the Lucy Ball movie version of Mame (“producers weren’t exactly beating down my door saying that they had to have me”), and that hit has bought him time to write a screenplay at home. Since Bea’s TV contract gives her four-and-a-half months annual vacation and has only two more seasons to run, she is now finally fixing up the California hacienda which they regard as their first real home.
“We’ve lived in 15 places since we’ve been married, and we’ve never completely finished one of them,” groans Bea. “He thinks I’m a slob, and I think he’s an anal personality.” Gene is philosophical. “I’ve been angry and suicidal with Bea,” he says, “but never bored. I’ve cowed her, had her blubbering, but I’ve never been able to change her in the least. Bea is one of the great original characters of all time. Maude doesn’t come anywhere near her.”